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The inheritance of Rome : a history of…

The inheritance of Rome : a history of Europe from 400 to 1000

by Chris Wickham

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A excellent account of the Dark Ages, 400 through 1000, with a special focus on how patterns of political and economic organization changed over that time in Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and in the Islamic world from the Middle East to Spain.

After months of trying to dig into the text but bouncing off, I started underlining topic sentences, and the book came alive. For every assertion, Wickham offers detailed examples; when I stopped worrying about retaining those, the larger picture came rapidly into view. At base, Wickham argues, Western Europe saw a transformation from a civil society with a strong tax system, to a moralizing militaristic society where land ownership mattered most, to a fully feudal society with a 'caged' peasantry after 1000. Eastern Europe retained some taxes, and developed a two track governance: military and civilian officialdom, with much interaction and crossover between them. The Islamic caliphates retained a tax system, but since they relied on local leaders to collect and transmit the taxes, the governance structure was inherently fragile, and eventually collapsed into smaller states unified by common cultural, legal, and religious traditions. In the late chapters, Wickham argues that the strengthening of political control in the Carolingian empire forced communities on its border to centralize power, and those in turn caused a further ripple that eventually stretched to the northern and eastern corners of Europe.

It's a judicious and comprehensive book. ( )
  bezoar44 | Nov 16, 2015 |
The reviews I read of this book were not promising; however, I found it to be readable, interesting, and as comprehensive a survey of this vast stretch of time as could be hoped for. The author's approach of writing history "in its own terms, and without hindsight" gives a proper complexity to the period's events. This is not the retrospective story of how the European nations formed but rather an analysis how the legacy of Rome was carried forward for the first 600 years after the collapse of the Western Empire.

The book gives a grand overview of the early Middle Ages, with excellent notes for further reading to flesh out the details only alluded to in passing. ( )
  le.vert.galant | Jan 26, 2015 |
Just to be clear: Chris Wickham does not believe that he can explain anything. He repeats this over and over, so you'll not get the wrong idea. Let's be very, very clear: nothing in history is 'inevitable,' everything is 'contingent,' and we'd be fools to write history with our hindsight. Nope, we should see things as they were seen at the time. Except for women: the political role of women in the early middle ages deserves about 15% of a book covering everything from the production of wheel-thrown pottery to the highest of the high adventures, moral and military.

A historian friend of mine tells me these are the conventional pieties of professional historiography, and that I should just ignore them. But, at least in this book, they're so intrusive that it's impossible to do so. Chris Wickham obviously knows everything: from the tribes of Finland to the early Caliphates, it's all in here. He is, says the Literary Review, "a master of a pointillist narrative style." But if you add his immense knowledge to his pointillist narrative (i.e., = no narrative), you get page after page of fairly dull anecdote, none of which is put into any kind of context. Nothing can be compared to anything else without doing violence to the quidditas of the individual. Local experience is everything. If anyone has suggested the existence of a large scale trend (end of Roman civilization/ various crises/ the coming of feudalism) actually happened, Wickham has fifteen good examples to show why it didn't. This is because he disdains moralism in history (you know, the kind of thing where someone gets all huffy because King Wumba raped his mistress in 6th century Visigothic Spain. Evil Wumba! Well, fair enough). But our author is surely aware that these are not the only two ways to write history (see Maccullough, Diarmid; Judt, Tony et al...) Why doesn't he temper the mind-numbing nominalism (names of people, places and factions from the randomly chosen pp 294-5, excluding the ones most people can actually picture or point to on a map: Jubayr, Kufa, al-Farazdaq, Basra, Amman, al-Malik, Hisham, Sulayman, Gregory, Einhard, Synesios, Marwan, Khurasan, Yadi III, Al-Walid, Yamani, Qaysi, Marwan II, Kharijite, Hashimiyya, Quraysh, 'Ali, 'Abbas, Abu Muslim, Merv) with some comparison or generalization? Presumably because generalization has horns, a spade tipped tail, and makes idle hands its plaything.

After this romanticizing folly, you'll be surprised to find that the final chapter is called 'Trends in European History.' It's 13 pages long. Unless you're riveted by the catalog of ships' names in old epic poems, you might want to skip straight to them in your library copy. If you're looking for information about individuals though, this book is great. Also great are the chapters on Islam and its impact on Europe, parade of names aside. Three cheers for that. ( )
  stillatim | Dec 29, 2013 |
I'm sure that there is a great deal of learning behind almost every sentence. However, the book is full of long tracts of boredom, punctuated with the occasional interesting paragraph. Too bad the author thought it necessary to provide an old-school list of names and dates without enough context. ( )
  ValeStrasse | Sep 1, 2012 |
This book deals with a fascinating and often neglected period in the history of Europe. Sadly, it is a very hard read. Unlike, say, John Julius Norwich, the author is hardly able to paint the larger picture in which to add the details. Combined with a writing style that is almost a parody with its double negations and sentences that turn around on themselves, this makes it almost unreadable as a non-fiction book, but turns it into a dense textbook where almost every sentence needs to be parsed and analysed to acquire its full meaning. Wickham is certainly a knowledgeable academic, but he is lacking the skill of successfully sharing this knowledge with the public. ( )
2 vote fist | Apr 20, 2012 |
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For the students of AMH, the Ancient and Medieval History degree of the University of Birmingham, 1976–2005, who have heard and discussed much of this before
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Early medieval Europe has, over and over, been misunderstood.
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Historian Chris Wickham defies conventional views of the "Dark Ages" in European history with a work of rigorous yet accessible scholarship. Drawing on a wealth of new material and featuring a thoughtful synthesis of historical and archaeological approaches, Wickham argues that these centuries were critical in the formulation of European identity. Far from being a "middle" period between more significant epochs, this age has much to tell us in its own right about the progress of culture and the development of political thought. Wickham focuses on a world still profoundly shaped by Rome, which encompassed peoples ranging from Goths, Franks, and Vandals to Arabs, Anglo-Saxons, and Vikings. Digging deep into each culture, Wickham constructs a vivid portrait of a vast and varied world stretching from Ireland to Constantinople, the Baltic to the Mediterranean--the crucible in which Europe would ultimately be created.--From publisher description.… (more)

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Penguin Australia

An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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